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Do they get it?

BigyearexpertopinionI was recently interviewed as an “expert” by Boxoffice Magazine, for an article they do about new movies called “Expert Opinion”. It was a fun interview, and I think the resulting piece captures most of what I wanted to say about the movie (and, they ran my mug alongside Steve Martin … good work, if you can get it).

There have been a lot of articles recently (movie reviews mostly) on the interwebs and in the newspapers, about birding. Or bird-watching … or whatever.

As Rick Wright puts it, “For now, though, what I’m finding fascinating is the rare opportunity to look at birding from the outside, as critics and reviewers explain the phenomenon to their non-birding readers.”

So, how do we look? Rick scoops up a few examples:

Bird-watching seems like a harmless hobby, and I’ve penciled it into the calendar for my golden years. – Joe Williams

For most of the general population the only thing more boring than birding itself is watching other people do it. - Robert Levin

Bird-watching — or birding, as practitioners prefer to call it — makes for a stupefyingly boring movie. – Rene Rodriguez

Aside from an international staring contest and the World Series of Texting, there aren’t many challenges less suited for a movie than competitive bird watching. – Matt Pais

An asinine sort-of sport. – Dustin Putman

…you get the idea. I got an idea, too. They don’t get it.

Even someone who should get it, like Jonathan Rosen (in the New Yorker), doesn’t seem to get it. He invokes Freud to help us understand “Our tormented relationship to the natural world—the world that produced us and from which we are estranged.”

Tangent: I found myself watching television this week. I never watch the teevee, but I was trapped with my wife and her mother. While flipping channels, my mother in-law stopped at a show that she “just loved!” The program was American Pickers. It follows these two guys who travel the backroads of America searching for junk. But not just junk … good junk. Great junk. These guys know their junk.

In one segment, one of them is poking through a barn piled with 45 years worth of some farmer’s hoarding habit. He glances into a mound of unidentifiable metal parts and stops, whipping out a flashlight. Inside the pile, he identified the handlebar of a 1925 Harley-Davidson. He pulls it out (it turns out to be an almost complete frame), and begins haggling with the farmer. He gets this rusted piece of junk for $250. Then a scorecard pops up on the screen: H-D frame. Paid: $250. Value: $400. Profit: $150. 

Tick! These guys are birding for junk! Put me and my buddy Jeff in there, driving the backroads of Illinois looking for birds … keep a running score of what we see … and you have the same show. And people love it.

Okay, back to where I was. Here’s what people who don’t bird, don’t get about birding: it’s about skill. It’s about learning, and sharpening your skills. Rosen says, “Birding is like competitive meditation.” He couldn’t be more wrong. 

He even goes so far as saying, “They don’t even have to see them—hearing their call is enough” to illustrate how cheap he believes the birding experience to be. Does he have any idea how hard that is? How personally satisfying it is to be able to do that?

I use golf as an analogy for birding a lot. It has a lot in common with birding: it’s based on the honor system. You can participate at any level you choose … by yourself, as a team, just for kicks, or competitively. But what hooks people on golfing is that as you do it more, you get to a point where you want to do it better. You practice, you study, you buy better equipment, you travel to more difficult or more interesting golf courses. You get hooked.

For those of us who get it, I’ve just described birding. It’s about improving your skill. Setting the bar higher. Finding bigger challenges.

Rosen makes a distinction—between “birder” and ‘bird-watcher”—where none really exists. When I started at this nearly 40 years ago, I might have looked over a mudflat and seen a flock of Avocets, some Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, a few Yellowlegs and a couple Pectoral Sandpipers. 

Now, I look at the same flat and see Avocets, a Hudsonian Godwit, Semipalmated, Least, White-rumped, Baird’s, Pectoral and Western Sandpipers. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpiper, a few Dunlin, and way in the back, in the grass, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

“Birder” is just what we tend to call ourselves as we get better at it. But, I know birders who call themselves bird-watchers and bird-watchers that refer to what they do as birding. There’s really no difference between the two, and there’s nothing wrong with making the distinction … as long as you realize that it doesn’t matter, and you’re enjoying yourself. Got that?

And that’s the other thing that they just don’t get: both are having fun. So while the critics, pundits and philosophers are musing on our voyeuristic quest for balance, I’ll be out hunting for birds and having a blast. Hope to see you in the field.

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

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  • Nicely done, Greg. The analogies make sense.

  • Patrick Belardo

    I like the golf analogy. The analogy to American Pickers is good, but from a TV show standpoint, no layman one would want to watch birders doing that. The appeal of American Pickers is that people think, “Wow, I have junk, what might it be worth?” or, “Maybe I can go do this!”

  • Of course “they” don’t get it. And my main complaint about the movie was that it did very little to let “them” in on the joke. What we got in the movie was a string of birder in-jokes (some of them better executed than others). We got exactly what we asked for. The movie was not only about birders it was FOR birders right down to the impossible Great Spotted Woodpecker that we all KNEW was never seen in the lower 48. Only a really GOOD birder would get that meta-joke.

    I started birding in 1970. I stopped correcting people when they called me a bird-watcher in 1980. I started preferentially calling myself a bird-watcher in 1990. Chasing birds is the least of what I do. Chasing birds is the least of what most of us do. Chasing birds is the only thing movie goers outside our clique really got to see about birding in _Big Year_. The nuance isn’t celebrated. The tick is. You have to know what it takes to get to the point where you can recognize a Pink-footed Goose to know how hard that actually is, otherwise it’s just a goose. So what?

    I watch _American Pickers_. Another show I watch is even more arcane, _Meteorite Men_. It’s a show about two guys who travel the world looking for meteorites. They invariably end up in a big field somewhere walking back and forth with metal detectors finding horse shoes and pieces of barbed wire. In both _Meteorite Men_ and American Pickers_, it’s the prospect of striking it rich that got them on the air. There’s tons of nuance, a back story of expertise, but what got these guys TV shows was the possibility of finding a $20,000 piece of “rusty gold”. People would get birding if there was a cash prize at the end (or ancient aliens and ghosts).

    Most of us went into the theater expecting the worst. What we got was exactly the opposite. For years we’ve complained because people stereotype us in movies as “Miss Jane”. Now we’re complaining because we got the movie we wanted and we still get no respect. As if a movie could change anything.

    Maybe it’s time we stop worrying about what other people think and go bird-watching.

  • John Heneghan

    Well stated Greg!! Birding has become a venue to expand my knowledge of the flora and fauna of respective birds habitats.

  • Great piece, Greg. I have a fundamental disagreement, though, about your assertion that there is no distinction between a birdwatcher and a birder. That said, in the end, I think that if you call yourself a birder, you are.

  • Thanks, Michael. Well, my point is that there’s no real metric (nor should there be).

  • That’s what I’m not so sure about.

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